While the Vatican Council engages in broad self-examination, Protestant churches around the world should be doing the same
For a thousand years the pope has been the dominant figure in the Roman Catholic Church. Starting with a claim based on the church’s own interpretation of Matthew 16:18 and the vicegerency of the simple fisherman, Simon Peter, said to be the first bishop of Rome, through a long historical development including the so-called Donation of Constantine and the spurious Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, the institution of the papacy emerged. Gregory VII (Hildebrand, 1073–1085) and Innocent III (1198–1216) brought the papacy to new heights of power, so that state and church trembled beneath the ringed finger of Peter’s successors. The summit was reached under Boniface VIII (1294–1303). In the Unam Sanctam of 1302 he said: “[There] are two swords … the spiritual sword and the temporal sword.… Both are in the power of the Church.… Furthermore, that every human creature is subject to the Roman pontiff—this we declare, say, define, and pronounce to be altogether necessary to salvation.”
The church of Gregory, Innocent, and Boniface is feeling the pulse of change. It has often encouraged the idea that it is an impregnable fortress standing unaltered amid the changes of life. Yet this church is now examining itself. And in so doing it is turning its eyes to the Bible in a new way at a moment when Protestantism seems to be moving farther away from Scripture, even to the extent of “demythologizing” Jesus.
Beneath the façade of a church that appears uniform, but that in fact is not, a great struggle wages. The dimensions of that struggle have not been adequately assessed by those outside the Roman church. The very act of calling the Vatican Council is a clear indication of acute dissatisfaction with the condition of the church. On every hand there are signs that the bishops are restive under a monarchical structure with one supreme head and authority. Chief among these signs is the demand for collegiality.
Everywhere we detect signs of scholarly activity that threaten the monolithic structure of the church. Recently Pope Paul VI has had to declare that those who question seriously or deny the church’s teaching on transubstantiation (i.e., that in the Mass, bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ, although they appear unchanged to the senses) are heretical. And indeed this is a point at which the church has experienced great difficulty among inquiring and discerning university students, who can no longer receive this teaching of the church placidly.
Anyone with an eye to history knows that before long those scholars who are looking into the Bible for evidences will begin to ask further questions about priestcraft, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, penance, indulgences, and papal infallibility.
A keystone of the structure of modern Catholicism has been its stand against religious liberty. The question has agitated the Vatican Council, and arch-conservatives from Inquisition-minded Spain have sought to build a case against religious liberty from the Scriptures. The reactionaries have lost, but that still does not determine whether the present dissent within the church can be halted and the church returned to old channels, or whether it will become a reforming church in the true Reformation sense.
It was Pius IX who specifically affirmed that “freedom of conscience and cults” is an erroneous doctrine. To many Catholics today, the transition from the Syllabus of Errors to the schema on religious liberty is nothing less than revolutionary.
The present Pope seeks to exercise leadership in international affairs. To this end he left the seclusion of the Vatican to visit far-away places, including the Holy Land, India, and the United Nations in New York. But despite these journeys he appears to be only on the margin of creative leadership in his own church, as the bishops continually seek to trim his power and reduce the Italian-based and often intransigent Curia to manageable proportions.
It may be that the church of Rome is really headed not for renewal but for revolution. It may be that the dissent cannot be contained but will explode into revolt. Who can foretell that the present conflict is not a precursor to another Reformation? Who will dare to say that there may not be some Luthers, Calvins, or Knoxes within the existing order? At this moment many so-called Protestants appear to be on their way back to Rome. Is it not possible that many Roman Catholics would like to head in the direction of Protestantism—not in its present ambiguity but in its classic power?
We are profoundly grateful that the Roman Catholic Church is engaging in self-scrutiny. Protestant churches around the world could well afford to do the same. We both ought to subject every insight, every opinion, and every decision to the test of the Scriptures. It is to be hoped that the Vatican Council’s final pronouncement of its religious liberty precept will be followed everywhere in practice; that the control of the church by one man will yield to real collegiality; and that as a result of serious study of the relation of Scripture and tradition, some pronouncement will be made to endorse the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.
Surgery For President Johnson
President Johnson’s sudden surgery for an ailing gall bladder is a reminder of the importance of the unforeseen in human events. In assigning Vice-President Humphrey to a standby role in consultation with the cabinet, Mr. Johnson has made provision for the temporary emergency. But the situation underlines the need for a constitutional amendment on presidential disability. Since Providence is unpredictable, humanly speaking, such an amendment as has been ratified by eight of the required thirty-eight states is an essential safeguard.
Americans gladly uphold their President in their prayers and trust that he will fully recover. There is no heavier burden in the world for a statesman to bear than the Presidency of the United States, and when the man who carries it is laid aside by illness he ought to have the intercession of every God-fearing citizen.
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